'Packaging,' Not Content, of Science Seen as Stumbling Block for Students

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Houston--While most of those at tending the annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association here clearly share a desire to improve science education, several of the presentations on the four-day agenda suggested that, for many reformers, reform must include efforts to rectify the shortcomings of others.

Sheila Tobias, the author of a seminal work on "math anxiety," for example, argued that successful reform will begin only when science educators examine their own prejudices about who should go into science.

In a lecture entitled "What Makes Science Hard," Ms. Tobias argued that a "classroom culture" espoused by science and math educators is a greater stumbling block to success for many students than the subject matters themselves.

Ms. Tobias described a research project in which a group of professors and graduate students in non-technical fields enrolled in introductory-level science courses. Their unhappy experiences, she said, led her to conclude that teachers' expectations play an important role in who succeeds in science.

"What makes science hard may not be science itself, nor the unpreparedness, nor the prior alienation of high-school and college-level students," she argued. "But rather, how science is packaged and purveyed."Many science teachers, she said, have "a deeply held prejudice" about "who will do science, what such young people are likely to like about science, and when these choices are made.''Many, she added, display "an unwillingness to look upon highly verbal students" as fitting that pattern. "There is no perfect curriculum ... that will, by itself, reverse the migration out of science," she said. "But a commitment to listening to what our students have to say, and to continually improving what we offer them, will go far to give them what every student wants out of a new subject area most of all: a feeing of welcome and success."

Carl Sagan, the director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, offered a different perspective on what turns students away from science. Speaking at a press conference, Mr. Sagan conceded that many scientists have remained "aloof" from efforts to attract students into science. But he also pointed out that others, notably the biologist Stephen Jay Gould and the physicist Stephen Hawking, have done much, in the face of public apathy, to "glamorize" science.

Mr. Sagan also lamented that many students' initial enthusiasm about science is somehow quashed by the time they graduate.

American culture, which both offers and values instant gratification and "quick fixes," may not foster in young minds the patience that sci ence requires, he observed.

"Part of the problem is that sci ence does require a certain degree of concentration," he said.

Teachers here, meanwhile, enthusiastically snapped up free copies of Science Matters, a treatise on scien tific literacy published by the Car negie Institution, which emphasizes that "the basic ideas underlying all science are simple."

The book is a lucid and concise de scription of the scientific laws and principles that govern such fields as ecology and astronomoy.

It was written by Robert M. Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, and James Trefil, the Robinson Professor of Physics at L George Mason University and the co-author of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

Some 8,000 copies of the book were shipped to Houston.

The authors define scientific liter acy as the ability "to treat news about science in the same way that you treat everything else that comes over your horizon."

Yet, while the underlying thesis of the work may find an accepting au dience among educators, they might not find some of the authors' conten tions so palatable.

"Scientists and educators have not provided you with the background knowledge you need to cope with the world of the future," Mr. Hazen and Mr. Trefil assert.

They say their hope is to foster an understanding of science "in the great majority of Americans--those the educational system has already failed."


Vol. 10, Issue 29

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